After starting out in the early 80s as the producer of the São Paulo Film Festival, Korean-Brazilian activist and filmmaker Iara Lee moved to New York, where she made several documentaries and shorts, including Modulations (1998), an epic, worldwide history of electronic music. In 2003 Lee moved to the Middle East in response to the US government’s blatant disregard for the anti-Iraq War protests, and has spent the last nine years seeking out creative resistance in some of the world’s most dangerous places. Her award winning documentary Cultures of Resistance (2010) is a whirlwind tour of the world’s creative activists.
Lee is on a flight stopover in Dubai when Dazed gets through to her. She’s ebullient from just celebrating Libya’s first election, and is headed to a festival in Somaliland to present her latest documentary, The Suffering Grasses, about the conflict in Syria.
Dazed & Confused: Your new film shows a different side to the Syrian conflict. What did you want the world to see?
Iara Lee: People inside Syria are really suffering, but you still see amazingly courageous people. The doctors are risking their lives helping people injured in the fighting, because if you end up in the regular hospital, the government thinks you’ve been opposing them – they send you to jail, where they torture and kill you. Then we showed the women who are taking risks by hiding medicine on their bodies under the hijab, because they search the men but not the women at the checkpoints. In war you have extreme brutality, but also extreme solidarity. Very rarely do you hear of people risking their lives for their neighbours, so I wanted this film to be a celebration of that. It’s very beautiful. There was a similar moment in Cultures of Resistance, when the old women in Rwanda say how they hid the young Tutsis during the genocide. I’m glad you mentioned that, because to me these are the heroes. In Rwanda, a lot of people had been killed with machetes. How are you going to get revenge for killing a million? Kill ten million? That’s just not an option. To reconcile when you’ve lost all your loved ones, instead of getting a gun – it’s one of the most difficult things. You have to forgive and start from scratch to rebuild your country. Libya is going through that. There are still a lot of the people there who worked with Gaddafi. But it just gets to a point where you have to say, ‘Stop the killing – enough!’
D&C: In The Suffering Grasses you advocate non-violence. Is that unrealistic in a country facing such oppression?
Iara Lee: I never have the final answers. Personally I’m always for non-violence, but when you’re on the ground it’s very difficult. It comes down to freedom martyrs, all these Syrians going into non-violent demonstrations getting shot by the Syrian government. They’re paying with their own blood for something that’s a basic human right. The people in Syria wanted to stick to non-violence but they’ve been suffering so much brutality that they want to protect themselves. But there is nothing more polarising than giving weapons to people who are victims of repression, so it’s a very difficult balance. The international community needs to stop the flow of weapons into Syria. At the end of the day, the simplest truth is the truth: people are getting massacred and we need to help. Creative resistance, civil disobedience, putting pressure on governments not to be so lethargic. Twenty-four hours in a day is not even enough for all we can do.
D&C: In the film you say Syrians feel it’s useless to engage with the media, because so little has resulted from it. Did that affect your filming?
Iara Lee: I first experienced this when I made a short film about women under the Taliban and went to the refugee camps – they were so angry, we had to flee. They said, ‘So many journalists have been here reporting on our suffering on TV, month after month, and nothing happens.’ That’s why our Cultures of Resistance Network is trying to create support systems. We made The Suffering Grasses on the Turkish boarder with Syrian refugees, and for the parts in Syria we used material from people inside with cellphone cameras. Then we bought cameras and sent them into Syria for activists to keep reporting, and we sent bulletproof vests as well. Now we’re using the film to raise funds to send more medicine to Syria.
D&C: Before you started working on Cultures of Resistance, your last film had been Modulations, about the evolution of electronic music – how did one evolve from the other?
Iara Lee: Look at the creation of electronic music – it’s mainstream now, but it originally came from these underprivileged kids from Detroit and Chicago who didn’t have money to buy acoustic instruments. All they could get hold of were synthesisers, so they started making techno and house music. I mean, you can have political analysts and journalists writing and writing, but one person can come up with a song that moves millions of people. It’s really underrated, the power of art, and limitations make you become even more creative. You can kill and destroy but that’s not long-term. Creativity and education will bring long-term justice – it’s the hardest way but it’s the only path for a solution.
D&C: Practically speaking, what do you want people to take from your films?
Iara Lee: We’re so interconnected with the internet and some people still don’t even know where Syria is! People get caught up with their daily lives, but we need to show solidarity. People are dying in the (Democratic Republic of) Congo because they have coltan, a mineral that’s important to our BlackBerrys and laptops – we’re the beneficiaries of the blood gadgetry. One of the things I don’t want with our film is for people to watch it and then go home and think, ‘That was interesting,’ but not do anything. Our website tries to point out some of the good organisations. You can volunteer and be in the field helping out. If you have your vacation, don’t go to London, Paris and New York, go to Rwanda, go to the Congo! You see these images of war in the media and think the whole country is like that, but people are getting married, kids are going to school and people have their regular jobs amongst the violence. It’s less terrifying when you’re there. You know how the state department tells you not to go to all those countries? They give you the opposite advice – it should say, ‘Go there!’ (laughs)
D&C: That’s unusual travel advice! What’s one of the most dangerous situations you’ve faced?
Iara Lee: I calculate risks. I’m not suicidal. But you might as well take bigger risks to access bigger truths. I guess the most terrifying was when I joined the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010. We were delivering humanitarian support, but it was also a political act of civil disobedience because we are against the illegal siege of Gaza. But we never expected Israeli soldiers to come on the boat and start shooting people. We lost nine people. It shows the importance of international solidarity, because normally the Israelis kill Palestinians and the world doesn’t care, but when you had different nationalities involved, all of sudden the international media was giving coverage. It was a big turning point in the conflict. What’s amazing is that their families are still committed – when there was a new flotilla, they were all ready to go again. They want to continue what their fathers started, and keep fighting until the occupation is gone. You can kill people but you cannot kill
resistance, that’s what is really beautiful. There are a lot of activists getting killed everyday – they are just ordinary people devoting their lives.
D&C: Are you going to continue making documentaries?
Iara Lee: At the moment I’d like to do something more individual because it’s so logistically heavy when I make films. It involves hundreds of people, I feel like the general of a big army! I’d love to learn Arabic, Farsi, and hopefully Swahili. If you don’t know the language, you’ll always be an observer. Now my role is about nurturing – it gives me a lot of satisfaction to give young people cameras and tools to go out there, explore and document. I’m more like a grandmother now! What do you tell people who are starting out? It’s important to follow a gut feeling that says, ‘This is not right, what is going on?’ You don’t have to understand everything fully, but try to stick with the underdogs, the ones who are oppressed. It’s very gradual. The more you experience these things first-hand, the more you feel a part of the movement. I guess you only have one shot at life, so if you don’t mingle with people in extreme situations you’ll never really understand. I think all of us, even if you don’t come from families or backgrounds of activists, always have the opportunity to become one. It’s the rent you pay for being a part of this world, you know!
D&C: It sounds like you’re always travelling and working. Do you ever miss having a home and a ‘normal’ life?
Iara Lee: Having a life? Not me! People say, ‘Oh, I envy you, I wish I had your freedom and could be travelling everywhere,’ but it’s not all exciting. Sometimes you feel lonely, isolated and sad, because you’re witnessing so much tragedy. But it’s okay to sacrifice your personal life in order to create something a little bigger than your own personal happiness. But yeah, it’s obviously not easy!
Images from THE SUFFERING GRASSES, 2012
Photo by Mohamed Khale